NEWARK — New Jersey residents often take advantage of the cool, comfortable temperatures of autumn to enjoy the beauty of nature and clean up around their homes. The experts at the New Jersey Poison Control Center are urging homeowners to be aware this fall of some potential dangers lurking in parks, in fields and yards, under leaves and in gutters.
“We get a number of calls this time of year from people who are stung by insects, touch a potentially poisonous plant or eat an unknown berry or mushroom they find when cleaning up their yards,” said Steven Marcus, MD, executive and medical director of NJPIES. “The Poison Center is staffed by doctors, pharmacists and nurses 24 hours a day and many of these calls are resolved through a brief conversation with one of our experts.”
Dr. Marcus noted that some dangers more commonly associated with summer months can also linger into the fall. Poison ivy, for example, continues to produce harmful oils up until the first frost. “Even when you wear long sleeves and gloves, you need to be careful,” he said, “because the oil can remain on clothing for weeks if not washed.”
Dr. Marcus added that the first step to avoiding any outdoor danger, whether plant, animal or insect, is to be able to identify it and take proper precautions. Field guides, available at many camping or sporting goods stores and as “apps” on some cell phones, can help identify poisonous plants, berries and fruits, insects, snakes and more and are a great resource for those who plan to spend a significant amount of time outdoors, even on their own property.
“However, if you’re unsure about what just bit you or what you just ate, it is always better to be safe than sorry,” he said. “Program the poison help hot line (800-222-1222) into your cell and home phones so you can reach us quickly and find the best course of action. You can also call us before you go outside if you have any questions about what might be lurking in your yard or gutters or on scenic trails.”
The following tips can help homeowners stay safe this fall:
Good Enough to Eat?
Mushrooms: Buy them, don’t pick them
- Nearly 100 people call the Poison Control Center each year due to exposure to poisonous mushrooms.
- Only experts can tell poisonous mushrooms from safe mushrooms.
- Eating even a few bites of certain mushrooms can cause life-threatening liver damage.
- More than seven out of 10 cases of exposure occur in children under age 12.
Berries: Consult a field guide before eating
- Berries are often found on plants in the fall and some can be poisonous.
- Avoid common misconceptions that generalize the safety of berries based on appearance such as color or texture — poisonous berries can be black, red or white and can be either bumpy or smooth.
- Always supervise children and pets when near bushes and trees that contain berries.
- Some berries that can harm people do not harm birds or other animals.
Leave These Plants Alone! (Note: “Leaves of three, let them be.”)
- Poison ivy — Poison ivy has branches that contain three leaves, with three leaflets on each. The center leaf is on a stalk that is longer than the other two. In the fall, its leaves can be orange, yellow, red or brown.
- Poison oak — Poison oak can grow as a shrub or a vine. Similar to poison ivy, its branches have three leaves with three leaflets. Its leaves resemble oak leaves.
- Poison sumac — Poison sumac is a tall shrub that grows in wet, sandy soil. It has paired sets of leaves with seven to 13 leaflets on each. As with poison ivy and poison oak, the center leaflet is on a stalk that is longer than the others. In the fall, its flowers are yellow-green and its berries are white.
If someone is exposed to poisonous plants:
- Rinse the skin immediately with plenty of running water for at least 5 minutes.
- Wash clothing immediately (oils from the plant can stay on clothes for days or weeks).
- If found in the yard, remove the plants immediately — be sure to wear long sleeves and gloves.
- Do NOT burn poisonous plants — the toxins can escape into the air, causing illness if inhaled.
Something Just Bit Me!
Bees and wasps
- Bees and wasps remain active until the first frost and can make their homes in or near gutters.
- Stings usually cause redness and swelling and can be itchy and painful.
- People who are allergic to insect stings should go to a hospital if they experience hives, dizziness, breathing trouble or swelling around the eyes and mouth.
Spiders and ticks
- Spiders and ticks can often be found in high grass or under piles of leaves or branches.
- Although most spider and tick bites do not cause harm, two spiders to avoid are the female black widow and the brown recluse, which are generally not found in New Jersey.
- If a tick is found embedded in the skin, try to remove it by grasping it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pulling upward with a steady, even pressure, taking care to remove the tick intact.
- Do NOT apply heat, alcohol, petroleum jelly or fingernail polish to an embedded tick.
- Some ticks carry Lyme disease — look for signs of infection by monitoring the area of the bite for a red “bullseye” rash that can appear up to a month after the tick is removed.
- Although most snakes found in New Jersey are harmless, a small handful are venomous, including the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake — both of which are active throughout the state from May through October.
- DO NOT TRY TO HANDLE OR CAPTURE A SNAKE — Instead, try to take a picture of it for identification purposes.
- Nonpoisonous snake bites can be treated by cleaning and caring for the wound to prevent infection. In some cases, a tetanus booster shot is suggested.
- Poisonous bites should be treated immediately at a hospital or emergency care facility.
Call to action
NJPIES urges medical professionals, parents, educators, caregivers and the general public to call the toll-free poison center hot line, 1-800-222-1222, to learn more about outdoor safety precautions or any poisoning emergency.
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